The Cutty Sark has been destroyed by a fire. This morning on the news, the journalists were obviously referring to the ship as a "she", which didn’t surprise me. However, this reminded me of a conversation I had a few months back with one of the men who repainted the outside of the building where my office is. I pointed out to him that they’d been lucky with the weather, which had been glorious ever since the start of the work. He replied, gesturing at the scaffolding:
"Yes, but it’s been very windy at times, and she moves quite a lot."
She? Scaffolding is a she? That was a new one for me. I turned to my old Linguistique et grammaire de l’anglais, by Lapaire & Rotgé, to understand why. It suggests that the end of the Old English period marked a time of upheaval for the English language: not only inflections, but also nouns, pronouns and gender were going to be turned upside down during the transition between Old and Middle English. New criteria became absolutely central to determine gender (masculine, feminine, neutral), and particularly the "natural" opposition between animate and inanimate, and within these, the difference between human and non-human, masculine and feminine. The neutral benefited greatly from this grammatical upheaval and included everything which is non-personal, or words not concerned by the opposition between person of masculine gender / person of feminine gender.
That is why living but non-human creatures, objects, concepts, phenomenon and feelings were deemed neutral. Only pets, boats, one’s car, the homeland or home town and certain metaphysical entities susceptible to inspire humans remained on the border separating the neutral, the feminine and the masculine. Why? Because this new and very human-centred system allowed non-human objects and concepts to be included in the feminine or masculine territory, because they were linked to the "human sphere". Hence, a sentimental link, a closeness, an affective relationship can make an inanimate, non-human object or concept topple into the gendered sphere.
All of this explains why inanimate objects, such as a boat or a scaffold, can be given a gender. Spending days on a boat or a scaffold, whose resilience and solidity your life may depend on, is bound to create a bond which brings them closer to the human domain, and hence to the personal, gendered sphere.